Our wonderful exhibition Ireland and the English Lake Poets continues for just one more week in the Long Room of the Old Library (final day to visit is Tuesday 4 June 2019). In this blog post, curator Dr Brandon Yen explores Ireland’s role in late Georgian Britain’s political cartoons, two of which are featured in the exhibition.
Late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain saw the blossoming of pictorial satires. These hand-coloured prints commented upon the latest developments in a fast-changing world which witnessed the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, riots, rebellions, invasions, the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and the prolonged struggles for parliamentary reform, religious toleration and the abolition of slavery.
The works of the likes of James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and the Cruikshanks were widely distributed across Britain by booksellers, hawkers and political associations. Pictorial satires were displayed in shop windows, framed on walls and reproduced not only in journals and magazines but also on ceramics and textiles. Their popularity was such that they were exported to continental Europe and America in abundance.
Ireland had a prominent presence in British pictorial satires. Two events proved particularly fruitful in this context: the Union, which followed the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and the debates about the Catholic Question during the 1820s.
The Act of Union, which came into effect on 1 January 1801, was visualised in various ingenious ways: as a forced reconciliation of Paddy and John Bull, as the ‘United Sisters’ of England, Scotland and Ireland, as the rape of Erin by the Prime Minister William Pitt, as Britannia wooing Pat, as the marriage of Hibernia and John Bull, as Miss Hibernia dining with John Bull’s family (all of whom are allegorical embodiments of taxes), as a fight between the ‘Irish hen’ and the ‘English bantam’, as the luring of a wild Irish bull to be ‘baited by English bull dogs’, as Pitt in ‘a new Irish jaunting car’ driving two bulls tandem (a reluctant John Bull and a furious Paddy Bull), and as an Irish donkey longing for ‘a Union with the English Bull, ay by my soul or the English Cow, or the English any thing!’
These pictorial satires show us how the British public imagined Ireland. They also lay bare prevalent prejudices and stereotypes. Facetiously portrayed animals appear alongside potatoes, bogs, shillelaghs, pikes, burned houses, pigs in squalid cabins, tattered Paddies, Catholic superstitions, the Irish brogue and blarney to characterise a ‘sister island’ which, after 1801, was absorbed into the British people’s sense of nationhood. After Erin (or Hibernia), who was usually depicted with her harp and shamrock wreaths, the donkey and the bull were the commonest representations of Ireland.
Printmakers punned on the watchword ‘Erin go Bragh’ (Ireland Forever) – ‘Erin go Bray’ – and on Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association – ‘Ass-ociation’ – to craft their donkey images. The bull, on the other hand, alludes to a species of verbal blunders – ‘Irish bulls’ – which was connected with the Irish lower classes. The novelist Maria Edgeworth and her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth famously challenged this stereotypical association in their Essay on Irish Bulls (1802).
Nearly three decades after the Union, Catholic Emancipation received the royal assent on 13 April 1829. The Gordon Riots in 1780 had given vent to the anti-Catholic prejudices that ran deep in Protestant Britain. But British attitudes towards Catholicism underwent subtle changes during and after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, when Catholicism itself fell victim to Britain’s entrenched continental enemy. Catholic Emancipation was steered through parliament by the Duke of Wellington (Prime Minister) and Robert Peel (Home Secretary), who had altered their stance out of pragmatic concerns.The exhibition features a caricature attributed to Isaac Robert Cruikshank. Entitled Funeral of the Constitution and dated 1829, it alludes to the Graveyard Scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Here, Wellington is digging a grave for the British Constitution, and Peel is taking off his orange waistcoat to reveal his green garments (Peel had been nicknamed ‘Orange Peel’ because of his anti-Catholic views). George IV is fleeing the scene. Lord Eldon, a staunch opponent of Catholic Emancipation, is portrayed as Hamlet, contemplating the ‘fine revolution’ happening around him. In the background, York Minster is in flames, and St Paul’s Cathedral is re-inscribed St Patrick’s. A rollicking Pope, flanked by Daniel O’Connell and a monk, is about to enter the cathedral. An Irish piper follows them.
The exhibition also explores the English Lake Poets’ attitudes towards Roman Catholicism. In his allegorical vision of ‘Superstition, Religion, Atheism’ (1811), Samuel Taylor Coleridge changes his earlier anti-Anglican views to attack Catholicism and its kinship with materialist atheism. In his New Year’s Ode for 1822, Robert Southey envisions the eventual triumph of the Church of Ireland over the combined forces of ‘the Romanist’, ‘the sons of Schism’, ‘the unbelieving crew’ and ‘Faction’s wolfish pack’. He compares this Anglican victory to Arthur’s defeat of Orgoglio and Duessa (symbolic of Pride and the Roman Catholic Church respectively) in Spenser’s Faerie Queene. William Wordsworth, who was resolutely against Catholic Emancipation, published his sonnet sequence, Ecclesiastical Sketches, in 1822. In one of the sonnets, he glances critically at Henry VIII’s ‘reckless mastery’ following his break with Roman Catholicism. But he also alludes to Milton’s Paradise Lost in mocking those Catholic trappings that, in his opinion, mislead believers. Milton portrays how a ‘violent cross-wind’ blows ‘Eremites, and Friars | White, Black, and Grey, with all their trumpery’ to ‘a Limbo large, and broad, since called | The Paradise of Fools’. Borrowing from Milton, Wordsworth says that all those ‘Bulls, pardons, relics, cowls’ were not worth retaining, however much we lament the violence of the Reformation.
Ireland and the English Lake Poets continues in the Long Room of the Old Library in Trinity College Dublin until 4 June. An online version of the exhibition can be accessed here.
By Dr Brandon C. Yen.